Everyone tells you the stories of the old man on the mountain.
He lives in a cave at the top of the mountain, they say, whiling away his time meditating on life and contemplating the universe. He dispenses great wisdom to those who can find him, and the whole wilderness is at peace because of his august presence there.
Or so they say. People are always full of stories, always quick to fill in the gaps in their knowledge with the things that Everybody knows.
But you are bored, and it is not every day one has the chance to glimpse a great sage, and eh. What the hell, it's a nice day for a walk, and the forest is, in fact, peaceful.
Of course, you don't expect it to be quite that arduous a hike.
The peach that bounces off the top of your skull is just about the last thing you can take.
"I'm sorry!" chirps a young man. He swings down from the tree behind you and gracefully snatches up the fallen fruit. "I didn't see you there."
"I didn't know anyone lived out here," you say. Other than the old man, you don't add.
"Eh. There are lots of people out here. They just mostly like to be left alone, y'know?" The man turns and bounces away from you, up an overgrown deer path, and you nearly blush at the implicit rebuke.
"I didn't mean to bother anyone," you say.
The youth turns back and blinks guilelessly at you. "You aren't. People go walking here all the time; anyone who doesn't want to be bothered just stays out of the way." He puts one hand on his hip. "You joining me for lunch, or not?"
You blink, and follow.
He takes you to a place that might, by some stretch of the imagination, be called a cave. It is certainly carved into the mountainside, not too very far from where you crossed paths with the falling peach. Inside, however, it's rather nice, with simple furnishings and bright blankets, little growing green plants, the occasional odd knick-knack. A marked-up antique map is pasted to one whitewashed wall, and little cheeping birds peck at some spilled grain. It is strangely monastic.
About the only thing the little home is missing, in fact, is a door.
The clatter of a cooking pot disrupts your musing. "I hope soup's okay," the young man says. "I've run out of ingredients for anything more complicated."
"Soup's fine," you say.
The grin he gives you is wide and entirely free of shadows. You wonder how anyone over the age of two can grin like that.
"So, what brought you up here, anyway?" he asks.
You aren't quite sure how to answer. Saying you came up here on a whim, chasing a rumor, is … well, in retrospect, it's all a bit silly. You say it anyway.
The young man blinks at you, then laughs, loud and boyish. "Man, that rumor is still going around?" He wipes mirthful tears from his eyes. "Hoo boy."
"There's no old man of the mountain, then?"
He chuckles again. "Actually, I can think of several. More than several, if we're counting the whole forest." The grin comes back. "I told you, loads of people come up here to play at being hermit."
"Huh?" He's contemplating the soup with an almost unnerving intensity.
"Did you come up here to play hermit?"
He is silent for a long moment, staring into the depths of the soup. He stirs it gingerly, then smiles. It isn't his bright silly grin, just a sad and thoughtful smile, but it is just as wide as the grin, and just as solid.
This, you realize, is not a man who feels anything lightly, and this is not a man who breaks.
"I guess I did," he says finally.
"Why?" you ask softly.
His smile at the soup, this time, is crookedly wry. He reaches for the ladle and two bowls. "I had something to protect." He hands you a bowl of soup. "Eat up!" he commands, grinning again. "You'll never have the strength to make it back to civilization if you don't!"
For something cooked over a fire pit in the middle of a nicely-appointed cave, the soup is actually tasty.
Later, as you make the long, long hike back down to civilization, you remember the old stories: that some five hundred years ago, when there were still youkai in the world, four people - a water demon, a monkey, some sort of demonic pig-thing (you think), and some kind of great priest, back when there were still sanzos - set off to save civilization, and that they did, and that they made it there and back again. You always thought they were just old folktales, especially since no one seemed to know what, precisely, that third person even was. It is just a Golden Age myth, like those of countless cultures around the world; there never were any sanzos, never any magical scriptures that balance the world, and who knows? Maybe never any demons at all.
But you remember that this is Mt. Gogyou, and that it is, or is rumored to be, the thousand-year home of the Great Sage Equal to Heaven. And you remember your host's glance at the old map with the route to India indelibly marked on it, when you asked him if he was a hermit, and you remember the way your eyes were drawn inexplicably to the five unassuming rolls of … paper? cloth? … that sat bundled neatly in the far corner when he told you why he stayed.
And you remember, on your way down alone, the three worn stones just off the edge of the path, and you remember the weight of ages, the weight of the world, in those gold, gold eyes.
The gold eyes with slitted pupils, you recollect later, and his messy brown hair hadn't hidden his tapered ears at all, and the hand he had used to hand you the bowl had been tipped with razor-sharp claws.
The old man of the mountain has a monocle he doesn't need, and a strange bladed staff he shouldn't have kept, and a gun in his pocket that he carries like a talisman. Sometimes, when he's bored, he plays mahjongg with ghosts.
There is no old man of the mountain. There never was, and always will be.
You smile, contented, and move on.